Frank Nickell retiring after four decades at SEMO

Monday, September 17, 2012
Frank Nickell

When Dr. Frank Nickell arrived in Cape Girardeau from Albuquerque, N.M., to begin teaching history at Southeast Missouri State University, the Vietnam War was still raging and college campuses across the country were exploding with protest and turmoil.

But at Southeast, he found a campus that was experiencing little, if any, unrest.

"That was because Dr. Mark Scully, the president of the university at the time, put the lid on that sort of thing fairly tightly," Nickell recalled.

That was in 1969, and now Nickell will end his four-decade tenure at Southeast at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 academic year.

"I've loved the job," Nickell said. "Being an educator has meant so much to me, but I believe that it's probably the right time for me to leave."

Dr. Wayne Bowen, chairman of Southeast's History Department, understands Nickell's sentiment but will nonetheless be sad to see him leave.

"He will definitely be missed," Bowen said. "I've looked up to him as a friend and mentor for many years now. He has worked to make the history of this region come alive, and, not least important, students love him."

But Bowen isn't expecting Nickell to ride off into the sunset.

"I look forward to him becoming an emeritus professor in the department. He won't disappear."

Nickell almost did disappear from the Southeast scene after his first two years of teaching.

"I was contracted to teach for only one year," he said, "and that turned somehow turned into two. Then the person who I had replaced while he pursued his doctorate returned. I had to go, but I was lucky to remain in Cape Girardeau."

Nickell landed a history-teaching position at Central High School, but in 1973 he returned to Southeast. However, it would be in the bursar's office, not the classroom.

"I was offered the bursar's position after the fellow who was there had a heart attack," Nickell remembered. "I didn't even know what the job was about. Somebody asked me if I knew the difference between debits and credits, and I said yes. The next thing I knew, I was the school's bursar."

Nickell happily returned to teaching history full time in 1976 and became the department chairman two years later. It was during his time being in charge of the department when he realized it had the potential to do much more for the university and Southeast Missouri than offer classes.

"There was a time of disconnect between the university and the Bootheel region," Nickell said. "A lot of people there still referred to Southeast as 'Cape State.' There was no outreach to the region. I, along with equally dedicated colleagues, decided to change that."

What Nickell did in addition to his teaching duties was to initiate the Historic Preservation program at Southeast, made up of undergraduate and graduate students, that to this day remains involved in the preservation of area historic sites, artifacts and cultures. Then he helped create the Center for Regional History, which develops projects that explore the history of Southeast Missouri and areas in neighboring states.

Nickell became director of the Center for Regional History in 1990, and he sees both the center and the Historic Preservation program as ways to honor regional history.

"We found a way to reach out to Southeast Missouri with its own history and combine it with the work of the university," Nickell said. "I'm proud of that. They don't call it Cape State anymore."

In 1992, Nickell was one of 47 educators from Missouri institutions of higher learning honored with a Governor's Award for Excellence in teaching. In 2005, he was presented with an award from the Missouri House of Representatives that named him an Outstanding Missourian. And in 2009, Nickell received the Provost's Research Instruction and Development for Excellence award.

As for his life after retirement, Nickell plans to remain involved with the History Department at some level and tend to his farm north of Cape Girardeau.

"I'm fortunate to be in a part of the region that I love, and I will carry with me many fond memories of teaching," he said. "There's an old Indian adage: 'A man is remembered by the footprints he leaves behind.' I've left behind a few footprints."


Pertinent address:

One University Plaza, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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